John Park might come across as a little stern at first. But believe me, he has a heart of pure gold. He’s on a mission to help his community.
As executive chef/co-owner of Costa Mesa’s Toast Kitchen + Bakery, his professional life reflects kindness and generosity, with 10 percent of the restaurant’s profits donated to Orange County charities. Up to 15 percent of Toast’s staff are from Orange County’s neediest communities, including veterans, recovering drug addicts, homeless people, and former foster youth. Several workers stand out in his mind for their unending gratitude for the opportunity to work and learn. He says many have turned out to be the best workers.
Described as a new-age diner, Toast Kitchen + Bakery specializes in comfort food with a twist. It’s mostly a breakfast, brunch, and lunch spot, but the eatery also offers happy hour, open until 7 p.m. for early evening meals.
Park has planned the menu so that there is something delicious to delight each palate, with dishes to tempt everyone from hard-core foodies to families with children—vegans, vegetarians, and carnivores alike. Glulten-free, too.
Growing up in Glendale, he loved his mother’s homemade Korean fare. He describes it as across-the-board delicious. For 25 years, his mother, Younghee Park, has had her own culinary career, cooking in a Glendale Korean restaurant.
Twenty years ago, he attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, Pasadena. As a child, he never cooked, so when he started culinary school, he didn’t even know how to hold a knife. The first couple of weeks were a disaster. After that, his math and science background started to kick in. It helped him master precise pastry skills. It wasn’t long before he honed the ability to create amazing savory dishes as well.
Green Tea Soba Noodles were the focus of the video he recently taped with me. Colorful raw vegetables tumble with the springy, al dente noodles, generously bound with an irresistible sweet-spicy peanut jalapeno dressing. Yuzu pickled onions add just-right pizzazz to the mix, along with appealing garnishes: fried shallots, Marcona almonds, cilantro, and shelled edamame.
The recipe for the dressing yields a lot. If you like, cut the dressing ingredients in half. But I admit that I used up every drop of the leftover dressing in the week that followed our shoot. It was delicious as a topping for a wide range of dishes, everything from cooked grains to grilled chicken to roasted broccolini.
Dream Project: To open a Korean restaurant with his mother.
Switch Up Those Soba Noodles: Put a grilled salmon fillet on top.
Best Advice: Develop a strong work ethic; show up every day. And show up early.
Cookbook Fave: Claudia Fleming’s “The Last Course” is one of his favorite cookbooks. He says it is sensible and beautiful at the same time.
Secret Talent: With 4 children, three sons and one “princess,” he says that keeping his wife happy while he works 100 hours a week is his special talent.
Favorite OC Restaurant: Nothing too fancy when eating with the kids. He likes Burnt Crumbs (Huntington Beach) for its appealing twists on simple, classic dishes.
Soba Noodle Salad
Yield: 1 large serving, with leftover dressing and pickled onion
Yuzu Pickled Onion: 1 large brown onion, 1 large garlic clove (smashed), 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon salt, 3 ounces yuzu juice (generous 1/3 cup), 5 ounces white distilled vinegar (scant 2/3 cup), 1 tablespoon yuzu kosho (see cook’s notes)
Fried Shallots: 1 shallot, sliced crosswise, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, pinch salt and pinch ground white pepper (2 tablespoons canned fried shallots sold in Asian markets can be substituted)
Green Tea Soba Noodles: 8 ounces green tea soba noodles, canola oil
Peanut Jalapeno Dressing: 1 cup soy sauce, 1 cup (minus 1 tablespoon) white distilled vinegar, 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, 2 jalapeno chilies stems removed and cut into 1/2-inch crosswise pieces, 1 1/2 cups roasted peanuts, 1 peeled shallot, 5 to 7 peeled garlic cloves, 2 2/3 cups canola oil, pinch of salt and ground white pepper
Salad: 1/2 red or yellow bell pepper (cored, seeded, sliced), 1/4 head of red cabbage (cored, thinly sliced)
Garnish: 4 tablespoons coarsely chopped Marcona almonds, 2 ounces shelled edamame, handful chopped cilantro, green onion (2 dark green stalks, cut into thin strips)
Cook’s notes: Yuzu kosho is a pasty Japanese condiment made from fresh chiles (most often green or red Thai or bird’s eye chiles) that is fermented with salt along with zest and juice from yuzu. Yuzu fruit is a pebbly skinned, highly fragrant Japanese citrus. It’s a secret weapon used to create loads of bright flavor. Bottled yuzu juice and yuzu kosho are sold in Asian markets and online.
- Prepare Yuzu Pickled Onions: Slice onion and set aside in heatproof bowl. Combine remaining ingredients in saucepan and bring to simmer on high heat. Pour hot mixture over onion. Cool, cover and refrigerate well sealed, overnight or at least 8 hours.
- Prepare fried shallots: Lightly coat sliced shallots with all-purpose flour, salt and white pepper. Heat 1 inch of canola oil in small saucepan to 350 degrees. Add shallots and fry until browned and crisp. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towel. Season with salt and white pepper.
- Prepare noodles: Bring a large pot of salted water up to a boil. Place a bowl of ice water in sink. Add soba noodles and cook until al dente. Drain noodles and place in bowl of ice water. Cool completely; strain and in a large bowl, toss with enough canola oil to lightly coat noodles; set aside.
- Prepare Peanut Jalapeno Dressing: Place soy, vinegar, sugar, jalapeno, peanuts, shallot, and garlic in blender. Whirl until pureed and smooth. With motor running, add oil in thin stream. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
- To the noodles in the big bowl, add bell pepper, cabbage, and 1/4 cup drained pickled onions. Toss with enough dressing to generously coat the ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed, possibly adding more salt and pepper. Mound onto dinner plate, building it large at the bottom, and gradually smaller and smaller at the top. Garnish to taste.
Source: John Park, executive chef, co-owner of Toast Kitchen + Bakery, Costa Mesa
Toast Kitchen + Bakery, 1767 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”